The Archpoet


(Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 148, German Writers and Works of the Early Middle Ages: 800-1170, edited by James Hardin and Will Hasty, 1994, pp. 8-9)


Major Work:


Ten poems.


Manuscripts: At least 35 manuscripts have survived, of which Un. Bibl. Göttingen Cod. philol. 170 provides the basis of Poems I-VIII in the standard edition. Brussel Bibl. Royale 2076 is the basis for IX, and Pavia Univ.-Bibl. Aldini 42c for X, the best known of the poems.


First publication: J. Grimm, "Ged. d. MAs auf König Friedr. I," in Philol.-histor. Abhdlg. d. kgl. Akad. d, Wiss. zu Berlin aus d. J. 1843, 1845, 148 ff.; Kl. Schriften III 1 ff.


Standard editions: Die Gedichte des Archipoeta, edited by Heinrich Watenphul and Heinrich Krefeld (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1958).


Translation: Heinrich Krefeld, Der Archipoeta, lateinisch und deutsch, Berlin, Akademie, 1992.


No one knows the name, date of birth, or date of death, of the man who has become known as the Archpoet. Very little about his life can be inferred from the 714 lines his latest editor finds possible to attribute to him. That he refers to Reinald of Dassel as the Archbishop of Cologne indicates that he was writing between 1159, the year Reinald was elected as archbishop, and 1167, the year of Reinald's death. His reference to himself as ortus e militibus, "of knightly birth," (IV.18,2) suggests aristocratic birth, and his references to  Salerno in Poem VI indicate a possible journey he undertook.In spite of the dearth of personal detail about his life, the persona he adopted for his poetry (beggar, prophet, flatterer, Biblical exegete, drunkard, and lecher) has made him the most popular of all medieval lyric poets. No poem of his twelfth-century peers -- Hugh Primas, Walter of Chatillon, and the predominantly anonymous, arguably Goliardic poets of the Carmina Burana  -- has attained, in our time, 

the popularity of stanza twelve of his tenth and last poem:


                          Meum est propositum in taberna mori, 

                          ut sint vina proxima morientis ori.

                          tunc cantabunt letius angelorum chori:

                          "sit deus propitius huic potatori."


I propose to die in a tavern, so that wine may be near my mouth as I die. Then choruses of angels will happily sing: "may god be kind to this drinker."


Characteristically, the stanza combines Graeco-Roman (a phrase from Ovid's Amores) and Judaeo-Christian (a phrase from the Gospel of Luke) material, to  produce a comic, possibly sacrilegious series of rhyming, rhythmic trochees. 


 The Archpoet also makes use of both classical and medieval prosodic patterns, demonstrating in two of his poems, V and VI, competence at composing quantitative verse, while composing the others in rhythmic verse. Unlike Walter of Chatillon, he never combines in one poem both quantitative and rhythmic verse.


 The first poem, Lingua balbus, proceeds through 30 quatrains of elegantly pious commonplaces before revealing itself to be a begging poem. Claiming to be not simply modest, but flatly inarticulate and dull-witted, the poet nevertheless has the temerity to speak in the voice of Biblical prophets. For an audience of educated clerics, the combination of arrogance and humility establishes, as Curtius suggests, his authoritative credentials. The usual excuse for speaking in such a voice is to deliver the inward vision of a prophet who is outraged at the behavior of his fellow men. The Archpoet, however, is aggravated not by the usual motives for a satirist, but by his own impecunity. The wretched behavior  he complains about is his own, and his complaints consequentially become confessional, although poems II and X are more blatantly confessional than Lingua balbus. 


 Beginning again with the contrast of sublimity and humility, poem II offers  a set of extravagant variations in trochaics, on formulae of devotion and humility, addressed to the archbishop, to whom the Archpoet offers the role of God and Christ, while assigning himself the role of  Jonah (himself often read as a prefiguring of Christ) and Saint John. 


 Poem III is also a begging poem, this time 23 lines in classical hexameters,  with some end rhyme, leonine rhyme, and with each of the last 18 lines ending in a monosyllable.


 Poem IV begins with a disclaimer that combines the humility-topos with a series of  adynata,  as the Archpoet proclaims himself  not the man the Archchancellor thinks he is, since he does not have time enough for his assigned task, which Homer and Vergil themselves would not have been able to finish in five  years. He then modulates into yet another begging poem, this time in trochaic quatrains.


 In Poem V the poet is snatched up into heaven, where he weeps for Reinald when Augustine attacks him, for reasons not revealed in the poem. Since the poem ends with a complaint against Conrad's imposition of a higher price on wine, the Archpoet may have been playfully upbraiding the Archbishop for not opposing the increase. 


In dactylic hexameter with leonine rhyme to v. 22, followed by five stanzas of end-rhyming dactylics, poem VI portrays the poet sick at Salerno, dependent on the generosity of Reinald.


 Another panegyric begging poem, with a reference to the siege of Milan, Poem VII offers praise of Reinald in 7-syllable trochees, supported by personification, word-play, chiasmus, and various other schemes and tropes.


 Poem VIII is a panegyric of Reinald again, this time in the 6-line stabat-mater strophe, whose form would seem to bestow an instant sanctity on the Archbishop.


 Poem IX offers straightforward praise of the territorial achievements of Frederick I, without begging, though he again self-consciously speaks (ll. 27 ff.) of his task as a writer, and in the penultimate stanza pays tribute once again to the Archbishop.


 In the one hundred lines of Estuans intrinsicus, Poem X, the poet describes himself as driven by rage, like a bird in the wind, lustful, compelled by the nature of the poetic craft to be a drunkard, but willing to turn over a new leaf, and become virtuous, if the Archbishop will only grant him forgiveness.


 In each of his poems, then, the Archpoet pursues a narrow range of themes and genres, amplifying them with allusions to Roman and Christian texts, both Biblical and liturgical, thereby producing a comic, ambiguous set of poems, whose success indicates that medieval audiences could appreciate a great performance from a homo ludens.





Francis Cairns, "The Archpoet's Confession," Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  10 (1975), pp. 100-105.


_____, "The Archpoet's Confession: Sources, Interpretation and Historical Context,  Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 15 (1980), pp. 87-103.


_____, "The Archpoet's 'Jonah-Confession' (Poem II): Literary, Exegetical, and Historical Aspects,"

 Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  18 (1983), pp. 168-193.


Peter Dronke, "The Art of the Archpoet: A Reading of "Lingua balbus", in  The Interpretation of Medieval Lyric Poetry,  ed. W.H.T. Jackson, New York, 1980, pp. 22-43.


_____, "The Archpoet and the Classics," in  Latin Poetry and the Classical Tradition,  ed. by Peter Godman and Oswyn Murray, Oxford, 1990, pp. 57-72. 


Willibrod Heckenbach, "Zur Parodie beim Archipoeta,"  Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  4 (1967), pp. 145-154,


Paul Klopsch, "Zur 'Kaiser Hymnus' und 'Beichte' des Archipoeta,"  Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  4 (1967), pp. 161-166.


_____, "Acyrus (Archipoeta vii,11.2),"  Ibid., pp. 167-171. 


Karl Langosch, "Zur Bittpredigt des Archipoeta,"   Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  4 (1967), pp. 155-160.


Paul Lehmann,  Die Parodie im Mittelalter, Stuttgart, 1963, pp. 95-98, 135.


Marilyn B. Skinner, "The Archpoet's Use of the Jonah-Figure,"  Neophilologus 57 (1963), pp. 1-5 


G. Vinay, "Ugo Primate e l'Archipoeta,"   Cultura Neolatino  9 (1949), pp. 5-40.


Fritz Wagner, "Colores rhetorici in der 'Vagantbeichte' des Archipoeta,"   Mittelateinisches Jahrbuch  10 (1975), 100-105.